When I first heard of the release of Scott Huler's book Defining the Wind: the Beaufort Scale, and How a 19th-Century Admiral Turned Science Into Poetry, I was anxious to read a biography of Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort, of whom I have written elsewhere. I once had a biography of the Admiral but let it go during a move and regret the action. I had assumed that Defining the Wind was another in the series of biographies written in recent years on Admiral Robert Fitzroy and Luke Howard, men of considerable influence on the field of weather observation and forecasting.
It took me a couple chapters to realize that Defining the Wind was not one of these book. Instead of a full biography of Beaufort, it was a "biography" of the wind scale we know as the Beaufort Scale.
Huler takes us on a fascinating path of discovery following his revelation some years back of the concise beauty of the Beaufort Scale as found in the Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, which left him entranced by the scale's "quintessence of...verbal economy, the ultimate expression of concise, clear, and absolutely powerful writing, 110 words in six-point type" that describe the varieties of wind from calm to hurricane. After introducing us to his story of the path of that entrancement, the author shows us the roots of the Scale prior to Beaufort and its evolution since the Admiral charged Captain Robert Fitzroy to use it on the voyages of HMS Beagle.
Although I still thirsted for more about the life of Beaufort after reading Defining the Wind, I now also thirsted for more on the Scale's influence on many areas, for example, to hear famed Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen's humoresque for unaccompanied mixed choir "The Beaufort Scale" (opus 56). I also hope to see a better copy of the cartoon describing the Scale that hangs in the British Met Office. Both examples are areas that blossomed forth as I read this book.
It is not often I review a book that I purchased myself, but Defining the Wind: the Beaufort Scale, and How a 19th-Century Admiral Turned Science Into Poetry by Scott Huler is one that I felt I had to comment on. It is a richly written, highly personal account of the search for the origins of that text of the Beaufort Scale found by Huler in that dictionary. If you want a full Beaufort biography, go elsewhere, but if you were interested in Beaufort as relates to his famed scale, this is the book to read.
With my highest recommendations for Defining the Wind, I invite you to consider it for a good winter read this year (or even next spring as you prepare for more water recreation) and a great gift for the holiday season.
Weather Doctor's Book Review: Defining the Wind: the Beaufort Scale, and How a 19th-Century Admiral Turned Science Into Poetry ©2004, Keith C. Heidorn. All Rights Reserved.
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